Ian Hawkey looks at four talking points ahead of the next lot of Uefa Champions League last-16 matches this week
Chance for Chelsea and Manchester United to complete dominant week for Premier League clubs: Champions League talking points
England v Spain – the Double-Bill
What are the chances of a Premier League majority – five out of the eight clubs – making the quarter-finals of the Uefa Champions League?
After the English juggernaut thundered through the first week of last-16 matches, concern spreads across continental Europe that the combined spending power, and top-class managerial nous in elite English football, may be about to suffocate the rest.
Liverpool’s five unanswered goals in Porto last Wednesday and Manchester City’s 4-0 thumping of Basel have all but ensured two spots in the quarter-finals. Tottenham Hotspur’s comeback from 2-0 down to gouge two rare away goals at Juventus also points Spurs in the right direction.
But the challenge for Chelsea and Manchester United is to now match Premier League muscle against the country that commands club football, at least in European competitions. England versus Spain is this week’s double-bill, with the Primera Liga’s leaders Barcelona at Premier League champions Chelsea and United at Sevilla.
“By the law [of] numbers, somebody’s going to come out on top against an English club,” Sevilla manager Vincenzo Montella suggested when asked about the English momentum. “Maybe it’s us.”
Montella, who took over Sevilla last month and has yet to make them as consistent as he would like, knows United are fancied to progress. But he is also entitled to count his club as key contributors to the Primera Liga’s recent pedigree in European knockouts.
Sevilla’s three Europa League successes between 2014 and 2016 make them intriguing opponents for a United who won the same title last May.
In the Champions League, Spain trumps England on form. The Primera Liga has provided the last four European champions. Twice in the past four years the Champions League final was an all-Spanish affair. The Premier League has not had a representative in any of the last five finals.
Iniesta’s Blue Legacy
Chelsea-Barcelona has become a 21st century classic in the Champions League, twice featuring in dramatic semi-finals, and full of old grudges.
Andres Iniesta’s part in the saga stretches way back to the see-saw quarter-final of 2004/05. It includes that rocket of an injury-time away-goals-rule winner he unleashed – to everybody’s surprise – at Stamford Bridge in 2009, ushering Barcelona to the final.
He also has a more recent legacy to Chelsea. It was Iniesta who, as Barcelona captain, spoke to the club board in 2014 about the frustrations of a teammate. That teammate was Pedro Rodriguez, with whom Iniesta had shared many title wins with and would have liked to share more.
But he realised Pedro needed more game-time and asked Barcelona’s board to look kindly on his possible move to Chelsea. Iniesta had acted as a friend, a gesture appreciated by Pedro.
It is not only Pedro, with his speed and energy, who might unnerve Barcelona on Monday night. There is Cesc Fabregas, too, the former Barcelona apprentice and then senior midfielder who might still be a Barcelona player had his close friend Iniesta not been such an enduring occupant of one of the creative midfield positions.
Fabregas also joined Chelsea in search of more established status. And he sees Iniesta, 33, going on and on. “Once you have the talent, the class and the intelligence he has, he can play into his late 30s,” Fabregas says of Iniesta.
Target men looking for an upgrade
It was an unusually busy winter transfer window for the Champions League clubs. Several eminent strikers will be looking for opportunities this week to make a mark with their new employers.
There is Sandro Wagner at Bayern Munich, on the scoresheet at the weekend and a useful weapon, perhaps from the bench, against Besiktas, who lost an important forward – Cenk Tosun – sold to Everton.
There is Alexis Sanchez, who brings Champions League knowhow to United. Most intriguingly, there is Sanchez’s former Arsenal colleague Olivier Giroud. Giroud has two assists and a goal already for Chelsea and has given manager Antonio Conte a genuine selection dilemma for the Barcelona game: Giroud or Alvaro Morata?
Or – an option Conte has tried recently – no target man at all?
Rest, recuperation and not much thanks for it
Conte had a chance to thanks the authorities this weekend. His club, Chelsea, have often complained that the Premier League is more reluctant than leagues in other countries to adjust the domestic fixture list to allow clubs more days off before big European games.
Ahead of Barcelona’s arrival, Chelsea got to play their FA Cup tie against Hull City – a breezy 4-0 stroll – on Friday. Meanwhile, Barca had to make the long trip to Eibar on Saturday.
Was Conte effusively grateful?
“With Barcelona we are talking about a team used to playing every two days,” he insisted. “They play in many competitions and play every two days.”
As his bosses at Chelsea are finding out, he is a hard man to please.